Richard Stallman

Often known by his initials, RMS, Richard Stallman developed many flagship software, notably those underlying the GNU project and the GNU General Public License (GPL) (the most widely used free software license), which he wrote with the lawyer Eben Moglen and the collaboration of Roland McGrath. In this article, we’ll cast a look at this legend’s life & achievements. So, let’s roll.

Early life & endeavorments

Born in Manhattan, it was at the age of 16 (1969) when Richard Stallman first became acquainted with a computer. After high school graduation (1970), he found his first job at the IBM Scientific Center in New York and began writing his first program, a preprocessor for the PL/I programming language on the IBM 360.

He began studying physics at Harvard University. In 1971, as a freshman at Harvard, he became a hacker at the research department in artificial intelligence of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was hired by Russ Noftsker, a man who would later found Symbolics and become a bitter opponent for Stallman. 

He wrote the Emacs text editor in the C computer programming language with James Gosling (who later developed Java) plus the AI technique of dependency-directed backtracking, also known as truth maintenance (1975).

After graduating from Harvard earning a BA in Physics in 1974, he enrolled as a graduate student in physics at MIT. But abandoned his graduate studies at the end of his first year in the graduate program to focus on his programming at the MIT AI Laboratory. One thing that needs to be mentioned here is that Stallman has been awarded six honorary doctorates and two honorary professorships.

Events leading to GNU

Considered as the father of free software, he began to take an interest in the subject during his time at MIT AI Laboratory. The lab had a printer (the XGP, Xerographic Printer) that often went down. Still, since Stallman had the source code for the printer driver, he had changed the program so that the printer would send an electronic message to a user when that person’s job was printed and would message all logged-in users when a printer was jammed.

One day, the lab buys a new Xerox brand new printer (Xerox 9700 laser printer (code-named “Dover”)), more reliable than the previous one. However, the printer driver is not supplied on delivery. Stallman later heard of a laboratory that has the sources of this pilot. He went there, asked for the code but was told that the laboratory had promised not to broadcast the pilot’s sources. This one experience made him aware of the danger of “proprietary logic“.

Stallman argues that software users should have the freedom to “share with their neighbor” and to be able to study and make changes to the software that they use. He has repeatedly said that attempts by proprietary software vendors to prohibit these acts are “antisocial” and “unethical”.

GNU project

Aware that it is impossible to use a computer without an OS and that without a free OS, it is obligatory to use proprietary software. In 1983, Stallman launched the Free Software Movement by announcing the GNU project to develop a complete and completely free OS. Intended to be a free version of AT&T’s UNIX, GNU was created as a recursive acronym of GNU’s, not UNIX. 

Stallman began working on GNU in January 1984, resigning from MIT employment to do so (however, he later returned as a visiting scientist). In October 1985, he established the Free Software Foundation to employ free software programmers and provide a legal infrastructure for the free software movement. He is the president of the non-profit organization as a full-time volunteer.

The same year, he invented and popularized the concept of copyleft, a legal mechanism that gives authors a way to allow their works to be modified without releasing them to the public domain. It was first implemented in the GNU Emacs General Public License, and in 1989 the first program-independent GNU General Public License (GPL) was released. This inspired Creative Commons. 

By then, much of the GNU system had been completed. In 1990, he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called “genius award” that gives recipients a substantial financial stipend with no strings attached. The award helped free Stallman to personally develop several widely used software components of the GNU system, including a text editor, compiler, debugger, and various others.

Other less known achievements

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, used the GNU development tools to produce the Linux kernel. The existing programs from the GNU project (including the GNU Emacs editor, GNU compiler, and GNU debugger) were readily ported to run on the resultant platform; alas, people often call the general-purpose OS formed “Linux” instead of GNU/Linux, giving the GNU Project none of the credit. 

Stallman very dislikes that not using “GNU” in the name of the OS unfairly disparages the value of the GNU project and harms the sustainability of the free software movement by breaking the link between the links software and the free software philosophy of the GNU project.

In 1999 Stallman published “The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource,” a paper calling for creating a free online encyclopedia by inviting the public to contribute articles. Almost as soon as he set up the GNUpedia Project, another open-source encyclopedia project, Nupedia, the predecessor of Wikipedia, appeared and adopted the GNU Free Documentation License, so the work on the GNUpedia Project was merged into Nupedia.

In recent times

Nowadays, Stallman focuses on political advocacy for free software and its ethical ideas, though he had limited success in convincing governments to move completely to free software. He was one of the principal people interviewed and profiled in the 2001 documentary Revolution OS by American director J.T.S. Moore.

In September 2019, Stallman attracted controversy after attempting to discredit an alleged victim of Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender. Later that month, Stallman resigned from MIT and the Free Software Foundation.

Stallman has received many awards. Most notably among them are the ACM Grace Hopper Award and the ACM Software and Systems Award, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, and the Takeda Award for Social/Economic Betterment, as well as several doctorates honoris causa and has been inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. 

Free Software, Free Society is Stallman’s book of essays. His semi-autobiography, Free as in Freedom, provides further biographical information.

Final thoughts

Although a legend, many of his former colleagues say that it’s not easy to work with Stallman from a political, interpersonal, or technical standpoint. Around 1992, developers at Lucid Inc. working on Emacs came into conflict with Stallman and ultimately forked the software into what would become XEmacs. Jamie Zawinski later published an email archive containing their criticisms and Stallman’s responses. Eric S. Raymond, one of the creators of the open-source movement, has written many pieces laying out that movement’s disagreement with Stallman and the free software movement, often in terms sharply critical of Stallman.

Leave a Comment